It was significant that these first believers place the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection at the time they had previously celebrated Passover. They saw a connection between the deliverance that God gave when the Hebrews were taken safely through the waters of the Red Sea and the liberation that they experienced as they connected with the risen Christ.
Let’s look again at the story of that first Easter Sunday and see if we can recover the message from that story of the empty vault.
Sometime early in the morning, on the first day of the week, just as the Sabbath was ending, some women went to see the vault.
And as they were going an unexpected event happened — a great earthquake and an angel descends and rolled the stone away from the vault. It was such a sight that it caused the big burley guards to be so shook up that they looked like corpses.
But the angel spoke to the women and told them, “don’t ya’ll be scared one bit.” He knew they were looking for Jesus but he is not there but he has been risen. The angel them gave them a mission to go and tell the disciples about this and to instruct the others to go to Jerusalem where Jesus would meet them.
Well they were so excited that they ran from the vault and started on their way. But as they are going, Jesus suddenly appears to them and says “Howdy.” This excites the women so that they ran and hugged his feet and worshiped him and he tells them, “ya’ll quit being so scared. Run along and tell the others to go over into Jerusalem and they’ll see me there.
Many of us grew up hearing this story every year on Easter Sunday. But what does this story really mean for us today in the 21st century? Does it mean that a dead body was put in a vault and by some interventions, it came back to life? That is what we have usually been taught but is that the only way to understand Easter? Well, I think not.
First Christian’s Experience With the Risen Christ
I believe that we need to look at the first Christian’s experience with the risen Christ.
You see, for them these stories that they told and retold were not looked upon in the same way that we do stories on the evening news. These were reflections back on how their community of faith had interacted with the presence of the risen Christ.
Paul offers a look at what these first believers thought of resurrection. His writing are some of the oldest in the New Testament, since they were probably written from 10 to 50 years before the first of the gospels.
He asks the question in 1st Corinthians 15 — “With what kind of body are the dead raised?” He then talks about the relationships between the physical body and the spiritual resurrected body. And the answer he gives is that it is sown, or put in the grave, as a physical body but it is raised a spiritual body — not a body of flesh and blood. It is also interesting that even though Paul says that Christ was resurrected from the dead, he does not mention an empty vault.
You see, resurrection does not mean resumption of previous existence but entry into a different kind of existence. It could involve something happening to a corpse but it need not. Resurrection, in fact, is like what happens when a seed is planted or a caterpillar makes a cocoon.
The seed goes into the ground and dies, and from its death, new life comes forth and fruit is produced. The plant bears no resemblance to the seed. The seed becomes the plant but the seed and the plant are radically different.
With a caterpillar, what happens when it makes a cocoon is something marvelous. While it is sealed away from watching eyes, and when it emerges, there is go resemblance to what went into that cocoon. And here again, the caterpillar becomes the butterfly but the butterfly is radically different from the caterpillar.
In the same way, Easter does not necessarily mean that God supernaturally intervened to raise the corpse of Jesus from the dead. Rather, the core meaning of Easter is that Jesus continued to be experienced after his death, but in a radically new way — as a spiritual and divine reality.
He was known in nonordinary experiences, as well as in the community’s life together. The truth of Easter is grounded in such experiences of the risen Christ as a living presence, not in physically observable events restricted to a particular day or a few weeks in the first century.
Our Experience With the Risen Christ
Because Christ lives, we too have the assurance of new life — not only after death but everyday we live.
Today, we can be raised from the tombs of fear and hatred that seek to hold us today.
Because Christ lives, we can be experience
life that transcends every human limit
love that triumphs over hatred
being which overcomes nonbeing.
As we each experience the presence of the risen Christ in our own lives we too feel our connection with those first Christians and Christians throughout the centuries.
And we experience the presence of the risen Christ that empowers us to continue the work and ministry begun by Jesus — to bring the message of God’s love, acceptance, and liberation to all people. And as we do, we seek ways to work for justice, not just for a select group but for all of humanity and ultimately for all of creation.
In this way, we experience the liberation from that which enslaves us, that which entombs us. And we find the empowerment to rise from those places of exile and estrangement to places of acceptance and transformation.
This experience of Christ’s presence each and every day of our lives is the core meaning of Easter for us today.